One of the most common pieces of relationship advice given to couples goes something like this: ‘if you want to have a good marriage, then compromise’. But I am not so sure.
It’s not that compromise is a bad thing. Quite the contrary. You need to be able to compromise to successfully navigate any human relationship. But if compromise is the only tool we have available to help us handle conflict, then we’re missing out on something.
For years, my wife and I relied on compromise to help us get through sticky situations. And none were more sticky than when we tried decorating our house together. In fact, it was through decorating together that we discovered that, although we were deeply in love, we were also completely and hopelessly incompatible when it came to interior design. My wife prefers floral style but I like minimalism.
I thought I’d scored a major victory when Kate suggested I choose my own preferred scheme for the guest bedroom of our first house. I later discovered how comprehensively I’d been outmanoeuvred when she sweetly pointed out that it was only fair that she now be allowed complete say over our master bedroom. And so I found myself lying awake, plotting counter-moves, surrounded by an explosion of blossoms, pastels and Laura Ashley prints! Compromise.
Over the years, decorating our house became a metaphor for negotiating our marriage. We learnt to take turns – you have it your way, then I have it my way. I put up with what you want, then you put up with what I want. Lots of marriages are like this. It’s the way we manage finances, raise the children, deal with the in-laws, arrange our social lives etc. Providing you each hold your ground you can find a compromise that’s fair.
But is merely ‘fair’ what we’re aiming for in marriage? What if we could move past this tit-for-tat behaviour? This type of behaviour doesn’t require much emotional maturity. At best, it gives a watered-down version of what one party wants; at worst, it allows both parties to go away equally unsatisfied.
The turning point for us came after ten years of marriage and two houses later. We arrived at the very last room to be decorated, the bathroom. And out of the deadlock, one of us had the revolutionary idea. How about we try to do this together and combine what we both have, rather than cancelling each other out? And so Floral-Minimalism was born!
Synergy is the idea that it’s possible to combine different elements into something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s how the best partnerships work. And it’s joyous! I remember Kate and I looking at our finished bathroom and realising that it was quite simply the most stunning room of them all. Over the next few months we went back and gleefully re-decorated the entire house together in the new style. Not my way, not her way, but a third way, a better way – our way.
Ask yourself – what things in your marriage could you do in that third way? What would it look like if you sought synergy in the way you handled your finances, in family time and discipline? What would those fevered discussions about holidays look like if you pushed beyond compromise and into a creative combination of you both?
We found three keys helpful in making this work:
1. Take your time
Trying things this way will take more time. That’s why you’ve got a much better shot at this if you already actively cultivate quality time together. Creative solutions are very rarely obvious the first time. There may be a few false starts and you may have to keep persevering through frustration and disagreement. But it’s worth the investment.
2. Talk it through
Your ability to find synergy is directly related to your ability to communicate well together. You’ll be dealing with emotionally-charged issues, so it’s crucial that you listen, understand where the other is coming from and communicate on a deep level.
3. Trust each other
Finding synergy is like performing a complex dance. You need to trust that your partner won’t tread on your toes, stifle your movement or let you fall to the ground. If you have a past history of compromise it at least demonstrates that you’re both willing to put the other first. Try mutual submission, where each of you lays down your own preference in favour of the other’s. None of this comes naturally, but it can be developed in every marriage.
It’s not easy to move beyond a tit-for-tat mentality, but the moments in marriage where this happens are simply transformational! So if you want a good marriage, then compromise; but if you want a great marriage – find a better way.